The Minnesota Timberwolves are last in the Western Conference. With a 4-11 record, there is clearly more than one problem here. For starters; Karl Anthony Towns has missed games, Jake Layman nor Juancho Hernangomez have returned to last season’s form, health and safety protocols have limited availability, and the roster construction is poor. The most controversial issue the Wolves have had this season is coaching. Ryan Saunders was promoted from assistant to head coach after Tom Thibodeau was fired, and has had a record of 40-81 since. Saunders is running out of time to prove that this team can be successful with him leading the way.
Problems with Ryan Saunders
The Wolves clearly have problems with rotations. Primarily when players should come out of the game. There are too many instances of players catching fire, then being taken out when their predetermined stint is over. This happens a lot to D’Angelo Russell in particular and can make it seem like Saunders is actively trying to lose games. Taking players out while they’re hot can be a momentum killer, and this has stagnated the offense on multiple occasions.
Players also have trouble getting into the game. On the MLK-day game against the Atlanta Hawks, Josh Okogie missed the entire 3rd quarter because Saunders was trying to match Okogie’s minutes with Trae Young. Young missed the 3rd quarter due to foul trouble, and Okogie didn’t play because of it. There is no reason that foul trouble on the opposing team should impact the playing time of the most impactful defender on the roster. The lineup data also shows that Saunders is struggling with identifying lineups. Six of the top-ten lineups by plus/minus have played less than 10 minutes together. Saunders should stray a little from the rigid lineups and minutes that he prepared and make adjustments based on the current play of the team.
Saunders has also had some trouble reading game situations. The most recent example of this was in the 20 point comeback game against the Orlando Magic. With 2 timeouts, and a 2 point lead, the Wolves got a stop, and Jarred Vanderbilt grabbed the rebound. He was fouled and sent to the line. He would miss both free throws, allowing Cole Anthony to launch a three-pointer that won the game. Vanderbilt was in the game as a defender, which makes sense, but he is also a poor shooter. Saunders should’ve been prepared to use one of his two timeouts to make substitutions for better free throw shooters once Vanderbilt secured the rebound. This lapse essentially lost a game that the Wolves should’ve won.
Mindset is the root cause for the loss against the Magic and many many losses in this franchise’s history. This team doesn’t seem to have any aggression. The Wolves went into the half of the Magic game up 16 points and came out in the 3rd quarter like they had won the game already. They seemed to go through the motions as if they’re a good enough squad to coast to a win. The aggression didn’t return until the Magic had completed their comeback, and by then, it was too late. This has been an issue since the Jimmy Bulter era and is largely the reason he wanted out. If Saunders wants to keep his job, he needs to instill a winning mindset into his players.
This makes watching any Wolves game a rollercoaster. It’s impossible to tell when the Wolves will play to win, or just play to play. When the team plays to win they are near unstoppable. Examples of this include last season’s 142-115 win against the full strength Clippers and the first half of the aforementioned Orlando Magic game. Jarred Vanderbilt plays to win and has broken into the rotation because of it, and Ryan Saunders needs to amplify that attitude if the Minnesota Timberwolves are going to amount to anything this season.
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